‘Israel doesn’t have to be in a state of conflict forever’

US Ambassador David Friedman talks about the US role in ushering in peace between Israel and the UAE

David Friedman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
David Friedman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
US Ambassador David Friedman was one of the key players in composing the Trump administration’s “vision for peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. And a casual observer may say that all that work over the past few years has been scuttled now that Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria is suspended in favor of peace with the United Arab Emirates.

But Friedman argues that the work was not for naught – far from it. The Trump peace plan was a key milestone in the process of ushering Israel-UAE ties from secret to open and official.

The ambassador spoke to The Jerusalem Post from the US, where he was preparing for the Israel-UAE peace treaty signing ceremony in the White House.

‘The Jerusalem Post’: When was the turning point, where things started seriously moving toward normalization between Israel and the UAE?

David Friedman: Behind the scenes, it’s been years. You can go back over the past three years, probably, in retrospect and find significant moments. We’ve obviously made numerous diplomatic trips in the region over the last few years.

If I was really looking for a turning point, I would say it was January 28, 2020, when we had the ceremony in which President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu were there, speaking about the president’s vision for peace.

The Emirati ambassador to the US [Yousef Al Otaiba] was in the room and received thunderous applause when his presence was recognized. It was not a serendipitous event. These things don’t happen spontaneously. We invited him to come. I don’t think he would have come if it wasn’t part of a hope that this could develop into something more....

From there, there were so many conversations with [White House senior adviser Jared Kushner], with [US Special Representative for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz], with me, with Israelis and Emiratis, too many to focus on one in particular.

In the two weeks prior to the August 13 announcement, I think, there was a real period of intensity.

When did Israeli sovereignty in parts of the West Bank, as delineated in the peace plan, come off the table?

I think when we announced the Trump vision for peace, what we demonstrated by the fact that the prime minister came, attended and supported it, and his political rival at the time [Defense Minister Benny Gantz] attended the day before and supported it, was that the Israeli leadership... whatever political differences they may have, saw this as the right framework proposal for potential peace with the Palestinians.

It demonstrated for the Emiratis that Israel is serious about making peace. For the first time since the conflict began, Israel was willing to identify geographic, territorial dimensions by which it would live side by side with the Palestinians. This process was not a bridge to nowhere, it was an opportunity for a resolution to the conflict.

I think that was important to the Emiratis. They saw that as the region changing. It gave them some comfort that they could move forward with Israel on diplomatic relations without undercutting the Palestinians.

You’re saying Israel’s willingness to make peace with the Palestinians was key to normalization with the UAE, but a lot of the talk about the agreement is that it demonstrates that the Palestinians no longer have veto power over Israel’s ties in the Middle East.

It clearly demonstrates that the Palestinians are not an obstacle to Israel opening diplomatic relations and making peace with its Arab neighbors. It was true with Egypt, it was true with Jordan, and now it’s true with the Emirates and I think other countries.

When the US announcement says Israeli sovereignty moves are “suspended,” what exactly does that mean?

I think you have to put this in the right framework. The entire discussion of sovereignty was not really on the table for polite conversation until we put out the peace plan. The peace plan provides that every community in Judea and Samaria that has an Israeli flag flying over it today will have it tomorrow and hopefully forever. That’s the peace plan. It generated interest in the region for normalization and for peace.

I don’t think this is a setback at all for the sovereignty movement. It’s recognition by the Trump administration and Israeli government that you have to prioritize various things.

It doesn’t mean sovereignty is off the table. It’s suspended, which by definition is temporary, but don’t ask me how long while we focus our efforts [on normalization].

There is no evacuation of Jewish communities in the Trump plan. That is the important context.

Why did the Trump administration pursue these ties when others did not before this?

We have been on this path since the early days of the Trump administration. We recognized early on that the Palestinian leadership is largely dysfunctional. Hamas is a terrorist group running Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority has very little support and a lengthy history of corruption in the West Bank. There were real challenges with the Palestinian leadership with regards to moving forward.

At the same time, we had lengthy exposure in meetings with leaders in the region and realized none of these countries are at war with Israel or have a particular ax to grind with Israel that is anything beyond a kind of preservation of a kind of ancient conflict. There is nothing recent at all that Israel has done that has offended the Gulf or vice versa. These are people with identical enemies with regards to Iran and have extraordinary opportunities among themselves to prosper and work together....

It made sense to us that if we could the stale rhetoric out of the way, we could really make progress.... We did think that [the peace plan] would sort of be the starting point that would really break the ice for the initiatives with the Gulf states.

One thing we [in the Trump administration] deserve credit for is that we scrupulously attempted to avoid groupthink and the conventional wisdom of our predecessors, who have nothing to show for 50 years of peace process. We took a different approach.

One big issue that has come up with normalization with the UAE is that it wants to buy F-35 jets, which some argue could threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) in the region. The US also says that the UAE is an important military partner. How will America balance the two sides?

The QME has been a legal issue since 2008, and it has been a policy issue for longer than that. The US is required to preserve Israel’s QME. The way to get this done is for experts on all sides... to go through the technology, really talk through it, to get to the right outcome.

What happened here, for reasons that I think are largely a function of Israeli and American politics, is that this issue has been raised to undercut the significance of the deal and say ‘maybe you made peace, but it came at too great a price.’ It’s a shame. It’s not something for public discussion.... Virtually no one talking about this issue is an expert. A lot of people are talking who don’t know the issue, and planting seeds of doubt. The people who have to make this decision will do it in the right way to Israel’s benefit without going to the press about it.

What does it feel like to be involved in such a historic event?

It’s been tremendously gratifying for Jared and I and for Avi and the president to have a strategy validated that so many people doubted. We really think it’s in the long-term interests of the State of Israel....

I’m 62 years old, and I’ve never known a day when Israel was not in a state of conflict. There was this assumption it would last forever, and our feeling when we came into office was it doesn’t need to last forever.

Whatever comes of Israeli ties with the UAE, it doesn’t mean Israel is out of the woods. Israel has a formidable adversary in Iran, and we will make sure they won’t get nuclear weapons. But how great is it that Israel has real Arab allies for the first time in history?

For someone who supported Israel throughout my life, it gives me enormous gratification. We were very optimistic that we would get to the right place, but you never know. When a plan comes together like this, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Is peace with more countries on the way?

I don’t want to get ahead of any other country or any of my colleagues, but I’m optimistic that there will be more such agreements in the relatively short term.